Shakespeare and Non-Fiction

In search of the biography

Authored by: Katherine Scheil

The Shakespearean World

Print publication date:  March  2017
Online publication date:  March  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415732529
eBook ISBN: 9781315778341
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696193


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Beginning with Nicholas Rowe’s inaugural biography in 1709, this chapter explores the long history of Shakespeare’s life story through the many biographies written about the poet in the last 300 years or so. The quest to separate the facts from the fictions associated with Shakespeare has been a long-standing goal of scholars and critics alike. While biographies are ostensibly works of non-fiction, there is a great deal of fiction required to knit together the scraps of Shakespeare’s life. The famous Ireland forgeries at the end of the eighteenth century speak to the desire to fill in gaps in Shakespeare’s story. While biographers are not necessarily forgers, they are encumbered with the task of producing readable narratives that connect the details we know about Shakespeare while suggesting something about the “personal story” (to use first biographer Rowe’s phrase) of the individual who was able to write the poetic works. The ways that biographers have connected Shakespeare’s life events, filled in gaps, and constructed a readable story often reveal more about the biographers themselves than about their subject. As Terence Hawkes points out, “Facts do not speak for themselves . . . unless and until they are inserted into and perceived as part of specific discourses which impose their own shaping requirements and agendas” (2002: 3). One biographer, Graham Holderness, has even exploited the line between fiction and non-fiction, overtly calling into question the premise that Shakespearean biography is objective and factual. Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (2011) rewrites Shakespeare’s life story from nine different angles, including a fictional component at the end of each chapter.

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